Monday, 10 December 2018

Monday Musing - 10/12/18

As we edge closer to the start of 2019, I've found myself reflecting a lot on this past year. It has been, without a doubt, the hardest of my life. It turns out that getting used to life in a new country isn't all that easy, particularly when it coincides with turning away from just about everything that formed the foundations of your status quo. I left a career path that had been my preoccupation and identity for over a decade. And my husband and I went from being students, together 24/7 for most of our relationship, to being thrust into the adult world of work and responsibilities. The learning curve has been steep and my mental health at an all-time low. But I'm fortunate to have so many places that I can turn to when crisis hits. An amazing husband, an irritatingly insightful therapist, and a decision to embrace my new-found freedom have all helped me to reach the end of 2018 with some semblance of optimism! 

One other thing that helped to shift my attitude this year was the decision I made that, when all else failed, I would not stop reading. If I couldn't drag myself out of bed or find the energy to get dressed, I would read. When making contact with the outside world felt like an impossibility, read. It was the best choice I could have made for myself. It allowed me to feel connected without having to connect. It gave me the space to reeducate myself on my place in the world, through the perspective of a hundred different lives, all with their own struggles and fears. Most of all, it helped me remember that writing and reading will always provide places for me to seize back some of the power I've relinquished. Everyone has the ability to create those spaces for themselves, although they will look different for us all. It is this lesson that I'll be carrying forward with me into the new year.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

"I conjure the boy I knew. Achilles, grinning as the figs blur in his hands. His green eyes laughing into mine. Catch, he says. Achilles, outlined against the sky, hanging from a branch over the river. The thick warmth of his sleepy breath against my ear. If I have to go, I will go with you. My fears forgotten in the golden harbor of his arms. The memories come, and come. She listens, staring into the grain of the stone. We are all there, goddess and mortal and the boy who was both."

I have always had a fascination with myths. I remember hunting out books at the library in my childhood - anything that would offer a retelling of the most enthralling legends from ancient history. I watched countless Sunday afternoon reruns of old film adaptations on the BBC (Jason and the Argonauts was a personal favourite). To this day, the ancient history sections of any museum hold a magic for me that has yet to be replicated elsewhere. Something about myths captured my young imagination and has not let go. The battle between gods and mortals, the infighting between deities, and the half-god heroes that surpass all reality in their bravery and singular focus on legacy, it all intrigues me. It is a surprise, therefore, that it took me so long to finally read Madeline Miller's celebrated retelling of the Achilles myth, The Song of Achilles.

The Song of Achilles was Miller's debut work (followed up this year with another mythical rewrite, Circe), published in 2011. Introducing a new element into the legend of Achilles and his participation in the battle of Troy, Miller chose to narrate the story from the perspective of Achilles' best friend and, in her telling of the myth, lover, Patroclus. Patroclus' own participation in the story of Achilles is well supported in the Greek canon. He features, albeit minimally, in Homer's epic Iliad as the "best-beloved" of Achilles' companions. Later interpretations of the myth understood the two to be lovers. It is out of this tradition that Miller has woven The Song of Achilles, more love story than high-reaching myth. With Patroclus as the story's narrator, Miller begins the novel in unchartered territory - in Patroclus' childhood as the son of King Menoitious. Following an incident in which a boy is killed, Patroclus is exiled to the court of King Peleus of Phthia to be brought up an orphan. It is immediately clear that Peleus' son, Achilles, is a boy of prodigious talent and beauty. The legends surrounding his birth - the rape of the goddess sea nymph Thetis by Peleus, as organised by the gods - are well known and taken as truth. In Patroclus, Achilles finds a companion unlike the adoring boys that vie for his attention. They become firm friends and, eventually, lovers. The story follows the two as they are taken in by the centaur Chiron, whose job it is to instruct the boys in all areas of education necessary for future warriors. As the story intersects with the Iliad, the reader accompanies the teenage lovers to Troy as Achilles readies to join Agamemnon's army and retrieve the exquisite Helen from her captors. It is from there that the story builds toward its fateful and tragic conclusion.

" 'I will go', he said. 'I will go to Troy'. The never-ending ache of love and sorrow. Perhaps in some other life I could have refused, could have torn my hair and screamed, and made him face his choice alone. But not in this one. He would sail to Troy and I would follow, even into death. 'Yes', I whispered. 'Yes'."

It is true that The Song of Achilles will win no prizes for lyrical or transcendental prose. The book has been accused of falling too much to mimicry of young adult fiction, a point on which I both agree and disagree. The writing certainly lacks maturity - Miller herself is a classicist in background - but I felt that this lack of clear technique worked in the novel's favour. Patroclus' naiveté and simplistic narration permits Miller to capture the human elements of the towering figures by which Patroclus is surrounded. Where historical myth and its retellings do an excellent job of positioning these heroes and kings as something surpassing human, Patroclus' narration introduces a novel degree of humanity into the characterisations. It is this that makes The Song of Achilles a worthwhile read. The humanising effect rendered by the narrative perspective perfectly complements the story's position as somewhere between myth and history. It is a novel replete with gods appearing in tangible form, mythical beasts, and the intricacies of god-designed fate. Miller manages to make these features feel perfectly positioned, whilst also moulding a plot that reads closer to a historical account. 

This said, there are places in which the narrative style is quite jarring. The tone itself feels stuck somewhere between the conversational and awkward style of modern teenage boys and the lofty, supercilious language that we might believe more appropriate to retellings of classic myth. Odysseus - brother-in-law to Helen and hero of the Odyssey - has dialogue that wanders between the two. At times, he sounds like a character that would not be out of place in a Jane Austen novel. At others, his turn-of-phrase becomes noticeably simplistic and contemporary. It is understandable how the novel is somewhat lost in amongst these two opposing styles. Miller's choice to dictate the narration through Patroclus, a teenage boy whose main priority is his romance with Achilles, makes a more contemporary use of language feel appropriate. Although born of kings, Patroclus is also a self-described simpleton. With the introduction of epic heroes and names with which we are all familiar, however, modern turn-of-phrase feels out of place. The result is dialogue that is stuck somewhere in between the two and a good amount of narrative confusion. The novel is saved largely by the humanising effects of the narration, as mentioned above. The elimination of lofty phrasing and flowery description - so often characteristic of classic retellings - brings a unique degree of relatability to the historical figures. Their humanity  - as depicted through their pride, conceit, manipulation, and love - is central to Patroclus' perspective. Whether intentional or not, the language's lack of apparent technique helps to break down the barriers that would otherwise prevent the reader from relating to this fictionalisation of history's greatest heroes and villains.

While The Song of Achilles has been loftily praised across the board, winning the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012, the book is not without its detractors. The novel has been condemned for the distraction provided by the romantic elements, as well as for its failure to adequately explore the events that surround the battle of Troy. It seems to me that any opinion of the book will be largely influenced by how closely you view The Song of Achilles in its relationship to Homer's Iliad. The mistake is to discount Miller's own description of the novel as fundamentally "a love story." In this summary, alone, it becomes difficult to see The Song of Achilles as attempting to follow in Homer's unreachable footsteps. If you view the novel as a work in its own right, detached from any previous attempts to retell the myth of Achilles and Troy, it immediately takes on a narrative depth that might otherwise be easily missed. 

" 'You have made a fair run of blocking fate's path. But you cannot do it forever. The gods will not let you'. He pauses, to let us hear each word of what he says. 'The thread will run smooth, whether you choose it or not. I tell you as a friend, it is better to seek it on your own terms, to make it go at your pace, than theirs'."

Miller does something unique for classic myth in her fictionalisation of Achilles and Patroclus. Not only does she successfully offer an interesting and innovative degree of tragedy to the legend's plot, she also introduces consequence to elements of the story that previously had none. The rape of Thetis, the sea nymph, dominates the novel's turns. Achilles' destiny becomes intwined with the goddess' distaste for mortals and the suffering that she has incurred at their hands. Similarly, the love affair between Achilles and Patroclus is not without consequence. Where such desires are excused among younger boys (who are expected to 'grow out' of their proclivities) or wealthy aristocrats who use slaves for the purpose, Achilles and Patroclus are often regarded with disdain and confusion. At a number of points in the story, their choice to pursue a relationship (albeit a choice that is typically restricted to private moments) is a point of tension. I enjoyed that Miller prevented The Song of Achilles from feeling blind to consequence. Although cultural and social differences quite clearly existed at the time, Miller offers a dose of reality to the implications of choices that, in some way, defied norms. It is a brave choice and, at times, means that there are almost too many motivations and narrative threads at play. Fictionalising myth is, however, no easy task. Miller manages to keep The Song of Achilles grounded in its origins, whilst still offering a twist that makes the novel feel both appropriately contemporary and exciting.

Although there are flaws in the novel, Miller does an incredible job with such intimidating source material. The choices that she made regarding narrative style and perspective give The Song of Achilles a truly unique angle on a myth that has already been so thoroughly explored and fictionalised. It is a wonderful novel that captures an unseen side to the tragedy and misfortune that characterises Achilles' story. That Miller is able to generate such sympathy and emotion surrounding the fate of characters originally described in an epic crafted over three thousand years ago is no dismissible feat. If you have a love of ancient myth or are simply looking for a novel that will draw you along on characterisation alone, you cannot go wrong with The Song of Achilles.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

A Book Lover's Gift Guide (For All Budgets)

I'm definitely one of those people who unashamedly revels in the Christmas season. I have my decorations up mid-November and make it a personal goal to watch a different Christmas film every night of December (although this admittedly requires watching some truly atrocious ones). While I don't love the commercialisation that undoubtedly accompanies the holidays, I do feel that gifts can communicate a thoughtfulness that is quite exclusive to this kind of occasion. The difficulty is that, over many years, it becomes harder and harder to buy presents that don't just feel like throwing money at the first potential gift idea in desperation.

Fortunately, for those of us who love books, there is always a way to integrate our obsession into the gifts that we give. Additionally, if you're buying presents for book lovers, you have a super easy avenue through which to make sure that any gift you give will feel incredibly meaningful. I've given and received a lot of book-related gifts over the years. As we enter the present-buying frenzy of December, I thought that I would share some of my favourite gift ideas with you - with suggestions to meet any budget!

*An important side-note: nothing in this post is sponsored, nor are any of the links. These are all knick-knacks and gift ideas that I just truly love!*

1. Give A Book

This may seem a bit elementary but it amazes me how few people think to actually give books as presents. One thing I love to do over the course of the year is make a note of any books I read that I think family or friends would enjoy. It shows a level of thoughtfulness that, even if the person doesn't end up loving your pick, you really can't achieve with many presents. 

I've been giving books as gifts for a long time. It's also a foundation for my relationship with my husband. Our first date was visiting bookshops around St Louis and we bought one another copies of our favourite novels. Every anniversary, we now pick out books for one another. It may sound overly sentimental but I don't think any present will rival the thought that goes in to picking a book for someone. It's also a really inexpensive option!

2. Book-Themed Jewellery

One of my first sets of presents from my husband was a pair of earrings and a bracelet featuring small excerpts of pages from Pride and Prejudice. I don't wear a lot of jewellery but these are some of my favourite belongings. If you pay a visit to Etsy (one of my all time top sites for gift purchasing), you will see just how many options exist. There are pins, necklaces, earrings, bracelets. And you can even tailor your search to specific books.

If you don't mind the American covers of the Harry Potter books (I'm biased, sorry!), there's this adorable bracelet for $35. Or perhaps classic novels are more your style, in which case this homage to Jane Eyre is perfection at just $16! Whatever your literary desires, this is an affordable way to give something perfectly tailored toward your favourite bibliophile!

This necklace is available from Nevalia Moon on Etsy for $10!

3. Tote Bags

I love a tote bag. In fact, I use them in the place of regular handbags, largely because they are far better at accommodating everything that I want to carry with me (and I always carry my current read wherever I go, in case of emergencies). Literary tote bags are everywhere and are such a great, inexpensive gift for the book lovers in your life. Out of Print is one of my favourite websites for bookish knick-knacks and they have a wonderful collection of totes, representing so many wonderful books. Their normal cost is $20 but they're currently down to $12 (although I'm not sure for how long)!

Totes are truly the perfect gift for those friends who make too many trips to the bookshop or library and could do with an extra bit of help in carting all of those books around with them!

You can get this super cute tote from Barnes and Noble! A little more expensive at $24.

4. Book Journals

Last year, my husband bought me a book journal - a specialised journal designed to help you record your different reads and thoughts about them. I had thought that this kind of thing was obsolete in the face of Goodreads and, in my case, blogging. But it is such a helpful way to keep a concrete record of your reading habits. 

There are number of book journals that are very fit for purpose. Although I don't own it myself, this one from Amazon (for $12.69) looks really perfect and is, importantly, small enough to carry with you. If you haven't tried keeping a book journal before - or if you think it might interest someone you know - I highly recommend it. It's such a great way to keep track of your thoughts and avoid that 'I think I've already read this' fiasco.

For a super sleek option, Moleskine's Book Journal is perfect (and on sale for $11.48)!

5. Bookends

Even with bookshelves everywhere, any bibliophile can always use more bookends. My husband and I have bookshelves all over our flat, yet we still end up with piles of books dotting virtually every available surface. As such, bookends have become a bit of a saviour for us. I love the feeling of being surrounded by books but I also like everything to have a place. So having a few sets of bookends really helps to create the feeling of organised chaos that has come to characterise my life.

Bookends are also a great budget gift because you can buy them from virtually anywhere, across a spectrum of costs. Amazon is a particularly great resource, with so many options that you are sure to find something absolutely perfect!

I actually have a set of bookends very similar to this. They're sturdy and wonderful! You can get this set from Amazon for $35.99.


Finally, if you are on a really tight budget but want to buy something thoughtful, you can never go amiss with bookmarks. I have about 30 and yet can never find one when I need it. No surprise then that, whenever I get a bookmark as a gift, I'm so excited! Once again, this is a gift that can fit a spectrum of budgets - but pay a visit to any bookshop and you'll easily manage to pick up a set of pagemarkers or a bookmark for under $5/£5. 

I even spotted these gorgeous metal mermaid bookmarks on Etsy, with a set of three costing just $4! 

You can find these gorgeous bookmarks from GlitteramaCrafts!

So there we have it, some holiday gift ideas to suit all budgets! Christmas present buying can certainly be a trying experience, particularly with our propensity to do it all from behind a computer screen without much thought. Everything has become a little less meaningful as we've put more distance between ourselves and our gift giving. Fortunately, if you have any book lovers in your life, it's so easy to find something that will make them feel extra special! 

If you have any book-themed gift ideas of your own, leave a comment down below. Otherwise, good luck!

Monday, 3 December 2018

Monday Musing: 03/12/18

One of the things that I've had to get used to living in the US midwest is the incredibly variable weather. Going from 35-40C heat in the summer to lows of -15C in the winter takes quite the adjustment, particularly for someone so used to very mild English weather. Living in such extremes has, however, given me a new and strange attachment to nature. I monitor the weather daily, watching the trees for signs of a turn. In winter, when it's possible to end up in inches of snow overnight, I'm especially conscientious about staying clued in on Mother Nature's favourite tricks. I've never been a big fan of snow, in particular. This is something that my husband - a native midwesterner - just can't understand. But I'm used to the 'snow as slush' relationship of England with its winter weather, as well as the inevitable fact that even the smallest amount of snowfall grinds my entire country to a halt for days on end. 

Now that I'm into my second December in Missouri, I'm finally starting to embrace the unpredictability of the winter weather. I've learnt to appreciate the value of a proper winter coat, the miracle of hats, and the singular focus with which to concentrate on the prospect of sitting inside with a cup of tea. With that mindset, even the most ferocious of winter storms can be an attractive proposition. So here's hoping that this December will bring a little more snowfall and some cosy afternoons inside, surrounded by Christmas lights, books, and - if you're very lucky - a little dog for company.